March 29, 2010

Dean Nick Jones of the Whiting School of Engineering

School’s ‘offensive lineman’ sees strength in internal, external teamwork

This is the third in a yearlong series of talks with the leaders of Johns Hopkins’ nine academic divisions and the Applied Physics Laboratory.

Nick Jones, dean of the Whiting School since 2004, attributes of the division's recent physical growth to its successful focus on collaborations Photo: Will Kirk/

Nick Jones, dean of the Whiting School since 2004, attributes of the division's recent physical growth to its successful focus on collaborations Photo: Will Kirk/

Nicholas P. “Nick” Jones hails from the bridge-building tradition of engineers—and he’s proud of it. Yet as the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, Jones has led an explosion of some nontraditional fields such as nanobiotechnology and robotics.

Jones is a firm believer in collaboration and says it’s vital that the Whiting School builds upon its tradition of interdisciplinary work. The school, founded in 1912, continues to draw upon and contribute to the university’s many strengths and renown in fields ranging from medicine and public health to the physical sciences and humanities.

A native of New Zealand, Jones received his undergraduate degree in civil engineering from the University of Auckland in 1980 and traveled to the United States to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees from the California Institute of Technology.

He joined Johns Hopkins in 1986 as a faculty member in the Department of Civil Engineering and in 1999 became its chair. In 2002, Jones left to head the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He returned to Johns Hopkins in 2004 to serve as fourth dean of the Whiting School.

His research interests include various aspects of structural dynamics, flow-induced vibration and wind engineering. Jones has received numerous awards for both teaching and research and serves on a number of national committees, including currently as president of the American Association for Wind Engineering.

The Gazette recently sat down with Jones to discuss the school and where it’s headed. We learned that the dean loves a good metaphor, an early morning run and some old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll.

Q: How do you view your role as dean?

A: The metaphor I like to use, and I use several, is that I’m an offensive lineman. Basically, I run interference for my faculty. At the end of the day, it’s the faculty who are on the field, trying to get stuff done and put together creative ideas. My job is to facilitate and make that happen. I have to get out in front and clear the path so that they can do what they do. I help get any impediments out of the way, such as administrative ones, and bring resources to the table to help make their aspirations come true.

More broadly, the metaphor that I’ve always used is that I think of the Whiting School as being a boat—let’s call it a yacht—and I function as the skipper. I have my hands on the tiller, and I have a great crew. They are down there on the deck, below the deck and up on the sails doing what they need to be doing, and doing it really well. My job in the Dean’s Office is to keep the entire boat pointed in the direction we want it to be going. I need to keep a look-out at the competition, and for high winds and squalls that could get in the way. And if we need to change course, I can’t turn the tiller too hard or too quickly so that anyone or everyone gets thrown overboard [laughs]. I have to do it slowly and carefully, just steer the school in the direction it wants to go.

Q: Is there a destination for this yacht? Can there be one?

A: A lot of the initiatives we have are obviously intimately connected to the Whiting School, but they have a degree of independence. I have to be careful when I steer. I need to be aware of what the other boats are doing. I don’t want to collide with them. I need to spend a lot of time making sure that everyone understands what we’re doing—where we’re headed and what it’s going to take to get there. That is not always easy.

Q: What would be your New Year’s resolution as dean?

A: Well, let me back up and say that I think the school is in a pretty good position now, having navigated our way through this financial crisis. My feeling is that a lot of indicators look really positive. So, in a sense, it’s hard to have a resolution for one year as we run the operation strategically. Everything is about multiyear visions.

In terms of the strategic investments that we have made over the past four or five years, we are now able to be in a position of financial stability. And with the right constellation of faculty and the right administrative structure to support them, I’m very excited about taking some careful steps to vector the school to a place we probably didn’t even think possible a decade ago. We’re poised to make some really important contributions to the betterment of society, both directly and indirectly, in the near and long term.

Q: Can we discuss the school’s strategic plan you launched in 2006: first, its focus on collaboration and innovation.

A: That is what we do very well in the Whiting School. We are just so massively interconnected. Many of our greatest successes have been through collaborative ventures. We have a lot of very long-standing relationships with other divisions of the university, and not a week goes by when another opportunity doesn’t present itself, both internally and externally. Collaboration and innovation are really core to our being. It’s what people are about here, and it’s what we do.

Q: Bioengineering was also a prominent feature of the plan. Why?

A: There are many things going on in this school that are great and really exciting, but one of our truly greatest strengths, and a place where we are recognized as being world-class, is bioengineering. In part, that is through the reputation of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. But beyond that, there have been many opportunities that we have seized upon to really advance the integration of engineering and medicine. Some good examples are the Institute for Computational Medicine, the Institute for NanoBioTechnology and the Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics.

Q: Another area of the plan centers on education for leadership.

A: I think it’s very important. We are not just educating future engineers and teachers but the future leaders for the engineering and scientific and research communities. We are really focused on that through a number of programs, including enhanced master’s offerings and our ongoing commitment to including undergraduates in research.

Q: Lastly, you also focused on strategic partnerships.

A: We have many collaborations that are internal to the school, but one of the keys to our success relies on our ability to reach out beyond the walls of the Whiting School and make partnerships with others, be they academic institutions, foundations or businesses. There are many, many opportunities for us beyond Johns Hopkins. When I came on board as dean, I was surprised how relatively little we did in this area, so we slowly and carefully built a strong relationship structure that’s external to the school.

Q: How has the strategic plan manifested itself so far?

A: Well, it’s been three and a half years of living and breathing the plan. I would say we are now in the position of revision, since some things have changed, many of our goals have been realized, some are halfway done, and some remain purely aspiration. Maybe there are greater opportunities out there, and we need to look at those.

Q: Would you like to mention some breakthroughs and realized goals?

A: With that plan as a backdrop, we have launched many initiatives. I can point to three major areas where we have rolled up our sleeves and we are working really hard. They are cancer, water and systems. Of course, this is not all that we’re doing, but these three areas are really exciting, and we’re focusing much attention on them.

Cancer, of course, falls under the general bioengineering priority. When we set up the Institute for NanoBioTechnology, roughly four years ago, the leadership of that effort worked with us here in my office and the other deans’ offices to pull together this group of people who were motivated by these opportunities that they saw coming down the pike to bring nanobiotechnology to medicine—cancer medicine, specifically.

They felt that by using these new technologies, they could make a huge difference and believed that funding was out there. It was. For example, just six months ago researchers at the Institute for NanoBioTechnology were awarded a $15 million five-year grant from the National Cancer Institute to launch the new Johns Hopkins Engineering in Oncology Center. We envision other big opportunities in the future.

The center will be housed here [in the New Engineering Building]. I’m moving this summer over to the Wyman Park Building to free up more space in the building to accommodate this phenomenal growth in this research area. Something has to give, and this is an incredible opportunity.

Q: What are we working on in terms of water and systems?

A: We are in the process of developing a number of new initiatives to support the efforts of the school and university in these areas. We have a Global Water Program, primarily with [the School of] Public Health; the Environment, Sustainability and Health Institute, with the Krieger [School of Arts and Sciences] and the Bloomberg School; and a Systems Institute, with APL and other schools. These are all exciting new cross-disciplinary efforts that enable the university to take full advantage of its many strengths.

Q: There has been tremendous physical growth in the school the past five to six years. What is fueling this?

A: A lot of our growth is a result of our focus on collaboration and our successes in research. When we do it, we do it well and are tremendously successful. The Engineering in Oncology Center is a good example of that. Who would have thought 10 years ago that you would have such a thing: a cancer center that is based on the principles of engineering and physics rather than the traditional focus of cancer research, which is more clinical and biologically based.

Now, we are building that even further and looking to develop with the School of Medicine an even broader institutionwide effort in cancer research. We have partners down in East Baltimore who have been in the cancer business far longer than we have, but engineering is absolutely at the table to respond to this great human challenge.

I think a decade from now people will see Johns Hopkins Engineering in a new light. They will say that they are the group that, through their collaboration with Medicine, blew the lid off the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. One of the most gratifying things for me is that there has always been a good relationship between Engineering and Medicine, but I really think we have taken that relationship to a new level.

Q: We’re talking a lot about bioengineering and computational sciences. Is there still room, and jobs out there, for the traditional engineers?

A: Absolutely! My home department is Civil Engineering. I’m the bridge guy, and I’m proud of it. So the quick answer is yes. But what is interesting here is our approach to civil engineering, which, while driven by practical problems and challenges, is fundamental and rooted in mechanics and mathematics.

There is generally a focus here from a fundamental and science-based perspective. In that way, people here in Civil, Mechanical, and Electrical and Computer Engineering can find a common language. There are many interesting challenges out there that are at their core multidisciplinary and complex. So our focus is on facilitating and teaching people to understand how you approach those sorts of problems.

Q: There has been a big national push for alternative energy approaches. Are we responding to that?

A: Yes. The Whiting School this January organized a symposium at Johns Hopkins around energy. We are taking the lead in putting together a group of people working in energy and in related areas to determine what Johns Hopkins as an institution can contribute to this field, and what role Engineering can play.

I would add that we are taking the long, not the short, view. Being “green” is hot right now, but who knows what will be in four or five years. As always, we will give our faculty the backing and flexibility, the freedom if you will, to figure out what they think will be next big thing.

Q: You mentioned the school’s size. Is that fixed, or do you see us growing much more?

A: The undergraduate population is reasonably stable, and that is through an agreement with my counterpart in Arts and Sciences. We are interconnected. It’s not just what is best for Engineering; we need to support the School of Arts and Sciences so that it can be the best school it can be. It’s mutually beneficial. Moving forward, the number of students might change, but I don’t see us ever being a large school of engineering by national standards by the nature of the type of experiences that we want to offer to our students.

For example, we believe that it’s very important that our undergraduates have opportunities to conduct research and take part in internships while they’re here. We can manage that pretty well at our current size. We have no aspirations to double the size of our program because it could compromise our ability to provide these kinds of experiences.

With that said, I do think there are opportunities to grow the size of the school when it comes to graduate study. In the next five to 10 years, we do expect to see a dramatic change at the master’s level in both our part-time and full-time programs. To do this, we will need to build on the strengths and resources we have now.

We currently have the nation’s largest part-time graduate [master’s] program, and we have planned for further growth as we continue to meet the needs of industry, organizations and the federal government, particularly in our Master of Science in Systems Engineering program.

We are also encouraging undergraduates to stay for a fifth year and do a concurrent bachelor’s/master’s program. We anticipate a growing percentage of undergraduates will, in fact, do that. To help make this possible, as of this year, Johns Hopkins undergraduate students and alumni pursuing a full-time engineering master’s degree here receive a 50 percent tuition grant during their fifth year of study. That is us putting our money where our mouth is.

Q: Are more women coming to engineering?

A: I think currently we have a little over 30 percent in our undergraduate population and just under 30 [percent] in terms of graduate students. The national average for women in engineering schools is about 19 percent, so we are doing much better than that. There’s more for us to do here.

The types of programs that we have here, and the way we operate, are by themselves more appealing to a more diverse undergraduate student body. I think we are making good headway there. We also have just about doubled the number of women on our faculty in the past decade.

Q: I’ve heard there’s been some level of concern about the general low level of interest in science on the grade-school level. Is that still accurate?

A: True. Our Engineering Innovation Program is focused on this pipeline issue. We realize, as do a lot of people around the country, the need to support STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education. Engineering Innovation is all about STEM education, reaching out to high schools and middle schools in doing our part to get more people in the pipeline who will go on to study at the college level.

Q: Totally off topic, how do you blow off steam?

A: Run. I tend to do it on the treadmill, as I run early in the morning. When the weather gets nice, I like to get outside. I like to bike as well.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. It’s the sequel to Freakonomics. I’m also reading Aris Melissaratos’ new book, Innovation: The Key to Prosperity—Technology and America’s Role in the 21st-Century Global Economy. Aris [senior adviser to the president for enterprise development at Johns Hopkins] and I have had a lot of conversations during my time as dean, and I appreciate his advice and wisdom.

Q: What are you listening to?

A: I’m a good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roller, and I was in heaven when The Who played the Super Bowl. I think they are one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands of all time. The old Who, that is. Roger can still sing, pretty much, and Pete can play a mean guitar, but I do really miss Keith, and John Entwistle’s bass lines.